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Filmmakers rock documentary about El Capitan climbers

| Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2012, 8:53 p.m.
Mike Kozusko tries to become the oldest person to climb Yosemite National Park's El Capitan in 'El Cap Report.' Credit: 'El Cap Report'

For mountain climbers, there isn't one, simple pinnacle of achievement that you work your way up to. For instance, even if you reach the summit of the tallest mountain in the world, Mt. Everest, well, there's still K2, the second-highest, which is considered the most dangerous and still has never been conquered in the winter.

But the closest thing for a rite-of-passage, must-climb for any serious climber is not all that tall, and it's quite easy to get there. In fact, it's in a picturesque park in sunny California: El Capitan in Yosemite National Park.

“They call it a ‘mecca' for international climbing,” filmmaker Dave Davis says. “It's the largest granite monolith in the world. One big amazing chunk of granite. We asked (climbers) to describe why, and ‘mecca' was used over and over. It's part of the climbing religion. Every climber wants to climb El Cap. You're doing a pilgrimage. It means you're a real climber.”

Davis and his partner, Mary Grandelis of Franklin, are screening their new documentary “El Cap Report” this weekend as part of the Three Rivers Film Festival.

The idea sprang from a chance encounter with climber Mike Kozusko at a party in Greensburg.

“We had moved to Brooklyn, N.Y., but we had been in Greensburg caring for my mother,” Davis says. “We came back to visit friends in Greensburg, and Mike was at this party. When you're a documentary filmmaker, it's surprisingly common how many people say ‘Hey, I have an idea for a documentary.' Mike said, ‘I've got a great idea for a film. I'm going to Yosemite. I failed last year, but I'm trying to be the oldest man to scale El Capitan.' ”

They followed Kozusko, 58, of Greensburg to Yosemite. An introvert by nature, Kozusko was struggling to adapt to life without his wife, who was confined to a nursing home with early-onset Alzheimer's. To cope, he felt drawn to the personal challenge of El Capitan.

Davis and Grandelis became enthralled with the vast array of characters that tend to be attracted to the mighty mountain.

“It's so accessible,” Davis says. “You can hang out there in the valley and have a great time, and if the weather is right, you can be starting a (climbing) project up this amazing cliff a few hours later.

“There are probably 10 films there that we could have made. We believe Mike's story is a compelling one. But all these other people — we had no idea what it would be like. We had no idea that they would welcome us into their world.”

People climb El Capitan for many reasons. Curiously, though, Kozusko isn't the only one who sees climbing as a form of therapy. One of El Cap's most-proficient record-holders admits that the adrenaline rush and concentration required are the perfect antidote to his depression.

The name of the film comes from the blog “El Cap Report,” run by a legendary climber who chronicles the goings-on on the mountain, and helped introduce them to the El Cap climbing community.

Davis and Grandelis plan to market the movie to local PBS stations, starting in Pittsburgh. They've had success with this before. Their documentary “Allegheny Stories,” about the Allegheny River, went this route, as did “Pennsylvania Crude,” a Rick Sebak-narrated documentary about the discovery of oil in Titusville.

“The Nielsen ratings in Western Pennsylvania were a quarter-million viewers,” says Davis, about “Allegheny Stories.” “You've got to go to a lot of film festivals to equal that.”

For Saturday screening at the Three Rivers Film Festival, there will be a reception, and live music performed by Davis and Grandelis. They play multiple instruments, and composed and played the music on the soundtrack for “El Cap Report.”

“We got started as musicians first,” Davis says. “We kept seeing imagery with the music we made. The music we naturally do is soundtrack music. We got into filmmaking because we wanted a home for our music.”

“El Cap Report” will be shown at noon Saturday at the Melwood Screening Room, Oakland. Admission is $10.

Michael Machosky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at mmachosky@tribweb.com or 412-320-7901.

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